The Case for Playing English Rugby Abroad

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It has recently been mooted that playing matches involving English teams abroad could become a realistic option. This has initially been suggested for the US market as the IRB, RFU and Premiership clubs look to increase the reach of the sport. The financial gains to be made are potentially massive as is the case whenever anything is taken to the States. Cracking the American market has always been the mark of global success for film, television and music, but not necessarily sport.

Team sport in the USA has always been a little cut off from the realities of the rest of the globe. Baseball has only reached Asia (to some extent) and Cuba. Basketball is a very popular sport across Europe but there have been only a very few examples of world class players emerging from outside the US College system. Ice Hockey is equally dominated by the North Americans.

While soccer has grown in popularity in the US through a successful strategy of centrally contracting US National Team players, alongside signing stellar foreigners, it still has a long way to go. While all of these sports are viewed as ‘national’ on the other side of the pond, it is such an enormous market that there are opportunities upon which other sports should be able to capitalise.

One of the most important parts of the remit of the IRB is to help develop rugby to a wider global audience. This has been a roaring success in the 7s format of the game as more and more teams have become capable of performing at an international level quickly. The chance to watch 7s as an Olympic sport will have a further impact, it is hoped, both in the men’s and women’s competitions. 7s is an easy game to understand making it a perfect vehicle with which to introduce it to a new worldwide set of fans.

The full 15-man version of rugby is a different kettle of fish, though. Even for people who have grown up in rugby-playing nations the rules are not always clear, and seem to change more regularly than the shirts in which teams go on to the field each season. Even for the seasoned rugby watcher (and player) some of the rules are misunderstood.

It is however a spectacular sport to watch. The sight of Israel Dagg taking a high ball while running at full speed, Will Genia fizzing through a gap at a broken line-out, Sergio Parisse crashing through a tackle, Manu Tuilagi smashing his opposite number, Sam Warburton putting his head in where it hurts and emerging with the ball, or Argentinian props matching their South African counterparts in an eight man shoving contest are all superb to watch.

These are the things that sell the sport. They are the high points which we need the wider rugby world to see on a more regular basis. And they need to see it live.

It is all well and good for us to say that we need to grow rugby internationally, but how do we go about doing it? The rules are complicated, the base support isn’t there to start with, and the opportunity to see top teams play one another in the flesh is non-existent.

Taking the plunge and relocating the occasional game to an American audience will certainly cause some consternation amongst the loyal supporters who pay and have paid their dues and money week in week out for years. But it may be a necessary evil.

NFL is a leader in this regard as the spectacle of regular season matches at Wembley draw in enormous crowds. Could the same be said about a Heineken Cup match staged in New York? Or an Aviva Premiership clash in Dallas? There is only one way to find out, but my guess is it would. Rugby in the states is a minority sport, but as I said before, it is a massive market.

The sceptics will say this is all about the money. The amount of cash generated would certainly be a factor, and there is no way that any team involved in such a match would get involved for a loss. But taking a share of the market and cashing in is probably a good thing for rugby anyway. Not many of the teams in England make much of a profit as it is, and the chance to increase revenues should not be dismissed because of conservative worries and cynical points of view.

More research needs to be done as to whether this is a goer but it could be a superb opportunity for the rugby world to extend its reach and take in new members of the global rugby family.

By Chris Francis (@mckrisp)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

10 thoughts on “The Case for Playing English Rugby Abroad

  1. I think it is a great idea to promote the sport and make some money whilst doing it. The American market is huge, and even if the tiniest percentage of Americans get into the sport, they could have more participants than some other rugby playing countries! But it’s a slow process. Getting schools/clubs to engage kids in rugby a huge step that is slowly taking place I believe. Not easy though. Even the huge American sports vary massively in popularity from state to state.

    One game a year. A Premiership or Heineken game or whatever – can’t hurt can it? I hold a season ticket at Quins but would I be that bothered if I was pre-warned/discounted on the basis that one game is played in the states? Probably not. It isn’t like it’ll be every team – in fact, if it was one Premiership game it would only be your team playing abroad every 6 years assumably?

  2. It’s something I’d be interested to see, perhaps done on a trial basis in the future, with two or three games per season played stateside. That may allow the powers that be to evaluate its success with regards to the publicity and popularity generated. America is definitely a market rugby should be looking to tap into.

    As noted above, some fans are likely to be less than impressed should they miss out on a big game, but that may indeed be “a necessary evil”. The schedule would also have to be sympathetic to players re turnaround time and rest periods, but that’s an issue that can be overcome fairly easily.

    My real gripe with the article is that the author has used the word “rules” when he meant “laws”!

  3. It shouldn’t be done as a test.

    They should arrange for teams to tour there pre-season, and establish the interest before moving the competitive fixtures there.

    Perhaps playing games such as Pro12 champ v Prem Champ, Top 14 Champ v Super Rugby Champ etc would entice people out.

    The IRB should be looking at international rugby. Tier 1 teams playing tests against Tier 2 would be more successful than trying to promote club rugby.

  4. Until now English teams playing rugby games abroad has been proposed to only other rugby planning countries. The gypsy team of Saracens in particular. This was done to market a single team brand in an established market become saturated by the French money of Toulon and Clermont.

    To try and market rugby as a whole in an already established market is obviously rundandant. So looking to the USA was a venture waiting to happen.

    But fans should be careful what the wish for. Everyone, at first, would jump at the chance to get a flight to New York or New Orleans to see their team in the Heineken Cup final with Superbowl partisan trimmings.

    But what happens when club owners and IRB chiefs are happy to move teams as franchises? Would Leicester or Wasps fans be happy when the USA establishes its maiden Premier League and the current American owner moves the entire team to establish the ‘Kansa City Tigers’ etc? I think not.

    Players will become wealthier, slick passing games will make way for more 80 minute car crash games and European leagues and Six Nation competitions will move and be changed to allow maximum revenue, in line with the new American Premier League.

    New money sounds great for business, and I believe there is a right way to tap into the American market. But steaming head first without looking back to where Rugby has come from and developed could result in another Sport Dystopia.

    1. A few huge flaws in your outlandish and exaggerated statements.

      An owner of a premiership club can not just move the club to america, Or it won’t be able to play a regular season in the premiership without the league agreeing to it, which it won’t. It makes no sense to.

      One of premiership games are being discussed, not a Heineken final. Again, very different.

      Also, the American market and rugby as a whole deems the slick passing games as favourable. So to suggest that is the style that would disappear is well off base.

      You’ve basically taken the idea of playing a one off game to America, to, what if all of the Premiership moves there!? Calm down; that won’t happen.

  5. Until now English teams playing rugby games abroad has been proposed to only other rugby planning countries. The gypsy team of Saracens in particular. This was done to market a single team brand in an established market become saturated by the French money of Toulon and Clermont.

    To try and market rugby as a whole in an already established market is obviously rundandant. So looking to the USA was a venture waiting to happen.

    But fans should be careful what they wish for. Everyone, at first, would jump at the chance to get a flight to New York or New Orleans to see their team in the Heineken Cup final with Superbowl partisan trimmings.

    But what happens when club owners and IRB chiefs are happy to move teams as franchises? Would Leicester or Wasps fans be happy when the USA establishes its maiden Premier League and the current American owner moves the entire team to establish the ‘Kansa City Tigers’ etc? I think not.

    Players will become wealthier, slick passing games will make way for more 80 minute car crash games and European leagues and Six Nation competitions will move and be changed to allow maximum revenue, in line with the new American Premier League.

    New money sounds great for business, and I believe there is a right way to tap into the American market. But steaming head first without looking back to where Rugby has come from and developed could result in another Sport Dystopia.

  6. It wasn’t a statement of truth and testament, more a worst case scenario.

    There are multiple sides to a debate, this is one against throwing off the brakes and flying straight into games abroad purely for the sake of revenue.

    I would love the game of rugby to be truly globally significant and present on the sporting calendar.

  7. Do you reckon they will be able to squeeze an advert in each time a scrum is being set/reset?

    As the article states, the NFL games in Wembley are a huge hit so why not try the reverse and see. I don’t see any downside to giving it a go. Currently costs are exceeding revenue for most clubs, the seemingly out of control wage inflation driven by the French market is only going to add to the financial pressures as contracts come up for renewal. They should look to broaden interest and grow the cake.

    1. Your first point is huge because that’s where the revenue comes from. Where are they going to squeeze the commercials/ads? Frankly, I have a few ideas, but none of them make watching rugby a pleasant experience.

  8. I don’t think it would hurt to try, but the US will be a hard nut to crack. Obviously, the more exposure to rugby, the better. However, I have my doubts about the potential money that can be generated in the US market (especially for AP clubs), but I’m pretty pessimistic about how popular 15s came become in the US.

    I think it’s funny that everyone is ignoring hosting matches on the west coast, which is the heart of rugby in the US.

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